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Sondheim!

A summer festival showcases the wit and artistry of the musical-theater master, drawing "nuts" from all over

For “Someone in a Tree,” he said, he used one chord and made “tiny little variations on it” for 60 bars, gradually building on it so the “audience never gets bored.” Then, he went on, “when you finally settle down to the chorus, and it finally hits the tonic chord, there’s that sense of, pheeeww! I think it’s terrific. So that’s what that is: It’s an attempt musically to echo the visual—and the literal—of Japanese art.”

 

Clearly dazzled, Horowitz brought up “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” from Sweeny Todd. Sondheim, who has a residence on the east side of Manhattan, said he’d researched the birdcalls in the score by listening to birds in the woods near his home in Connecticut. But would Sondheim’s Connecticut wrens have been heard in Britain?

 

“Oh, Mark, no! There’s a limit to research.”

 

I went to the KennedyCenter’s production of Sunday in the Park with George with some trepidation because, well, enchantment can’t be bottled, and 18 years had gone by since my conversion; few things are more embarrassing than the object of a passion after it has cooled. Would it be like rediscovering some ghastly old love letter or overheated journal entry, where you cringingly wonder what the fuss was all about?

 

And then the curtain went up on a striking stage set with covered easels, and from the orchestra pit a French horn cried out, and strings came flowing up like a flood of water from a spring, and the driving percussive motifs of the piano pressed their argument forward. Sure, it was easy to mark what wasn’t as good as the original (or the original as I remembered it), but memory slips too easily into myth, and after a while I found I wasn’t holding back with crossed arms and a show-me face. I wasn’t wanting the experience of the present to be as good as the memory of the past. I was hearing the music anew—seeing the drama of it in concert with the story on the stage. And suddenly the music was much richer for the drama that the singing actors were caught in. Which, after all, was the point. The finest rediscovery was a duet between the artist protagonist and his mother—“Beautiful,” which says “what the eye arranges is what is beautiful.” Until then, George’s mother has been awful toward her son, calling him “deluded” and pretending he doesn’t exist. And then suddenly they are together, George singing “All things are beautiful, Mother,” and the fading old lady imploring her “Georgie” to capture their lives in paint before everything vanishes. Their voices rise climactically on the word “Sunday,” and she sings, “disappearing as we look.”

 

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